Decision-Making Trends of the Rehnquist Court Era: Civil Rights and Liberties Cases

By Smith, Christopher E.; Hensley, Thomas R. | Judicature, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Decision-Making Trends of the Rehnquist Court Era: Civil Rights and Liberties Cases


Smith, Christopher E., Hensley, Thomas R., Judicature


Despite its conservative orientation, the Rehnquist Court did not reverse major liberal precedents of the Warren and Burger courts. It decided nearly half its civil rights and liberties cases liberally and even produced its own liberal precedents.

The announcement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist signalled an important transitional moment for the United States Supreme Court. After a remarkably long period of stable membership, the nation's most powerful judicial institution may be poised to move in new directions. The anticipation of changes in the justices' decision making stems not only from the replacement of two key members of the Rehnquist Court, but also from the recognition that issues of age and health may generate additional resignations in the foreseeable future.

With the chief justice's death, how do we assess the decision-making trends of the Rehnquist Court era? For several decades, common reference points have served as the basis for evaluating the Supreme Court. The Warren Court (1953-1969) transformed constitutional law with respect to civil rights and liberties. Its record provided a baseline against which subsequent eras are compared. Although it is widely praised for its role in delegitimizing racial discrimination, its decisions expanding First Amendment protections and rights for criminal suspects generated significant criticism.

Beginning with Richard Nixon, Republican presidents sought to appoint new justices who would diminish or undo many of the rights-expanding decisions of the Warren era. During the Burger Court era (1969-1986), new appointees contributed to a diminution of criminal justice rights and terminated the further expansion of other rights. However, the Burger Court never completed the constitutional "counterrevolution" anticipated by some observers. It preserved many of the Warren Court's important precedents and, indeed, contributed to an expansion of rights in areas such as abortion, affirmative action, gender discrimination, and legal protections for prisoners that the Warren Court did not address.

At the dawn of the Rehnquist Court era, Herman Schwartz asked, "How much of a repudiation of the Warren and Burger Court rulings promoting individual rights and liberties are we likely to get?"1 Over two decades, both journalistic and scholarly evaluations point to evidence that the Rehnquist Court never fulfilled conservatives' hopes for reversing many of the Warren and Burger Court's rights-expanding decisions.2 For example, journalistic reports labeled the high court as "the O'Connor Court"3 or "the Stevens Court"' to claim that specific colleagues of Chief Justice Rehnquist were exceptionally influential in steering the Court away from conservative outcomes in key cases. Scholarly analyses, for example, identified philosophical disagreements among Republican appointees5 and surprising combinations of justices comprising five-member majorities.6

Analysts of the Rehnquist Court's performance agree about "the generally conservative direction of the Court's decisions."7 Not surprisingly, many evaluations of the Rehnquist Court by scholars and journalists rely heavily on selected examples to demonstrate conservatizing trends with respect to some issues and rights-preserving decisions with respect to others. However, such analyses cannot evaluate how conservative the Rehnquist Court has been unless they rely on systematic evidence. This article relies on data concerning the Rehnquist Court's decision making in civil rights and liberties cases in order to contribute to a more comprehensive assessment of the Rehnquist Court.

Method of analysis

We assess the conservatism of the Rehnquist Court through use of quantitative data from Harold J. Spaeth's Supreme Court Judicial Database.8 Data on civil rights and liberties decisions compare the decision-making trends of the Rehnquist Court era with those of the earlier Warren and Burger eras.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Decision-Making Trends of the Rehnquist Court Era: Civil Rights and Liberties Cases
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?